In Korea, names are not important. Well. They are important at birth and before, when families go to the husband’s parents or a professional “name-giver” to name the child. But after all that work and fuss, the name is rarely used in Korea society.
Instead of names, Koreans use titles–a practice deeply rooted in the country’s traditional Confucianist beliefs.
When Koreans are talking amongst themselves, they address each other according to age and rank in society. Even down to the playful chatter between siblings. Every one has a specific title.
For example, Whit and I are known as sungsangnim (teacher) to our students and co-teachers. Does it sound like a long word? It is. But Koreans also shorten it to “Sam.” So when other teachers are talking about us to other people, they will say “Lindsay-Sam” or “Whit-Sam”.
When conversing amongst themselves, they rarely use their given names. Most of the time they just use Sam. I often watch them closely to see how one will know when she is being spoken to since there are 9 other Sams in the room. They usually just keep saying “Sam” until the right one looks up. Occasionally, they will use their room number and say O-Sam (5-teacher) or E-Sam (two-teacher). It’s sounds a little too much like Agent 99 if you ask me. But because we so rarely use their names, I’ll find Whit and me in a discussion like this: “Oh, you know what Teacher No. 1 said today?” or “What teacher will you go to next? Oh, Teacher No. 3. No, no, Teacher No. 6.”
Between siblings, there is a title for an older sister (Noona) if you are a boy and an older sister (Eon-ni) if you are a girl. And there is a title for an older brother if you are a boy (Hyung) and an older brother (Oh-pa) if you are a girl. Confused yet? Well. Good news. If you have a younger sibling–boy or girl–you can actually use their names.
These sibling titles are also used between students of different ages. When I have a class made up of students in different grades, I hear these titles in place of names–unless they are speaking to someone younger.
In public and at restaurants, when you are speaking to someone, it’s important to always use the correct title. Luckily for us slow Korean learners, the title Sungsangnim can also be used for older people as a term of respect.
There are also titles–that if used in America in it’s raw English version would result in a punch to the face or a withdrawn pistol– like “ajumma,” which roughly translates to old married woman.
I can’t help but cringe when I hear men scream toward the cramped kitchens in restaurants: “Ajumma! Yogi-yo! Maektchu!”
Translated: “Hey! Old Married Woman. I am here! Beer!”